Over lunch each week, just down the block from each other’s organization, RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower and First Lutheran Church Food Services Coordinator Ruth Ehrhardt bonded over their shared passion of community service. Together, they strategized Clower’s plans for the future and ways to connect resources for the Afghan refugees Clower primarily serves.
“I got super lucky because Ruth has an incredible wealth of experience that she has been able to share with me,” Clower said.
Through the unique opportunity of the RISE AmeriCorps mentorship program, members are gaining professional and personal connections to lead them successfully into their next season of life. RISE AmeriCorps members are carefully matched with mentors according to their ambitions. The pairs then meet for one hour per week for at least six months, talking through steps to meet their goals.
When Clower entered the mentorship program at the beginning of his service term with the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC), he was in the early stages of applying to graduate school. Each week, Ehrhardt sat down with him to touch base on his progress and talk through decisions. Clower has since been accepted into the Humphrey College of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and will start classes toward a masters in human rights in the fall.
However, Clower said one of his mentor’s largest impacts was supporting his RISE AmeriCorps service with CMC. Through Ehrhardt’s widespread network of connections in the community, she provided logistical support as Clower set up housing and resources for newly arriving refugees from Afghanistan. The pair collaborated to recruit teams of volunteers and source furniture for refugees’ new homes.
“We had resettled Afghan arrivals over the last six months and could not have done it without community support,” Clower said. “But I in particular could not have done my role without Ruth’s support.”
As the food services coordinator at First Lutheran Church, Ehrhardt fills an essential role coordinating resources for the local homeless population. Previously, she spent decades working in social services and as a registered nurse. Five years spent in West Africa also strengthened her interest in refugee resettlement, which is a field Clower is interested in entering.
“I kind of have the heart for and the understanding of being a stranger in another place, because I’ve been there [in West Africa] and people were good to me,” Ehrhardt said.
Ehrhardt’s commitment to guiding youth also runs deep as a former foster mother to several hundred children and teenagers over the years. Now mentoring her second RISE AmeriCorps member, she said connecting with youth helps keep her young and in touch with the world.
“We can all do small things in the places where we are. That’s what keeps me going everyday,” Ehrhardt said. “Giving encouragement to each other regardless of generation or what area they’re working in is always a positive thing.”
In turn, Clower said his mentor relationship with Ehrhardt inspires him to emulate her lifelong dedication to helping others. From Ehrhardt, he learned it is possible to make huge impacts in the community. He hopes following in her footsteps in this way can always be a part of his life.
To others considering the mentorship program, Clower and Ehrhardt urge them to take a chance and apply. RISE AmeriCorps members can sign up for a mentor within the first few weeks of their service terms. Prospective mentors can join the program by applying here: https://www.refugeeriseiowa.org/mentors.html. After being matched with a member based on their goals, mentors are required to meet one hour per week for six months.
“If you're considering the mentorship program, do it,” Clower said. “There’s just so many different things that you can learn from people. It can really only enhance your time as an AmeriCorps member.”
After the Taliban-takeover in Afghanistan forced thousands of families to flee from their homes and seek resettlement, RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff at Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) are helping Afghan refugees adjust to their new lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In affiliation with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), CMC is responsible for resettlement services to support refugees during their first months in the country. From coordinating housing to medical assistance to cultural orientation, CMC is the official guide in Cedar Rapids for refugees abruptly dropped into a foreign land and culture.
RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower said the number of Afghan refugees arriving in Cedar Rapids has poured in like a tidal wave, in comparison to the usual trickle of refugees resettled from mostly Central Africa. During just a two week period in November 2021, over 80 Afghan refugees arrived in Cedar Rapids. In all, Clower said 250 Afghan refugees have been welcomed by CMC from mid-November to mid-February. In contrast, CMC often resettles only about 150 clients over a year.
CMC immediately stepped up with the most urgent needs, like short-term housing. Clower said they usually try to set up refugees in apartments, but due to the large number of people, they are staying in hotels for now. CMC also set the refugees up for success by helping them enroll in public benefits like electronic benefit transfer (EBT) or Medicaid and receive medical screenings.
“Now, we’re trying to get people into long-term housing, get kids enrolled in school, work with people to get them into English classes and help them figure out employment options,” Clower said.
RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff also initially welcomed the rush of arrivals with a cultural orientation about life in the U.S. RISE AmeriCorps Member Laurent Ramazani has been especially helpful in guiding students through four classes, covering topics such as American culture, how to navigate the bus system, how to receive medical help and much more.
“If you think of it from the perspective of an Afghan evacuee who has been pulled in a lot of different directions and now planted in a new community, providing something like bus orientation is so important,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Victoria Conoan said.
With the help of donations, CMC also arranged outings to raise spirits and introduce Afghans to Cedar Rapids. RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff provided transportation and coordinated trips to see the Nutcracker ballet and spend a day at the Play Station, a three-story indoor playground.
“This is a way to get people out of the hotel in the middle of the coldest months of the year when they’re cut off from the community and everything’s new and strange,” Conoan said. “It was really neat to see because the kids had been cooped up in the hotel. They were just so excited to burn off energy at Play Station.”
Going forward, CMC is dedicated to following up with educational services like English classes and job readiness training. Conoan and Clower said many of the refugees previously worked for the U.S. military bases and have ample skills. With resources and education from CMC, they have the chance to gain quality jobs again.
“I want to see people stay in Iowa,” Clower said. “I would like to see Cedar Rapids be a place that really welcomes refugees from all over the world.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Despite hurdles this year, the Catherine McAuley Center’s online classes are taking off again with the help of RISE members. CMC’s tutoring program, which primarily supports immigrants and refugees, hosted its largest online orientation for new volunteers in October.
Volunteer & Outreach Manager Katie Splean says that the transition online was slow at first as the program gauged students’ interest and comfort level online. Computer skills were an initial barrier in signing up members of the immigrant & refugee community.
However, Splean says classes are picking up again recently after moving online this summer. In addition to training 20 new tutors at the October orientation, there are currently about 150 students working with about 90 volunteers.
Berryhill says her favorite part of her service is interacting with the students and tutors over Zoom and watching them laugh and have fun with each other.
“CMC's education program relies on strong, positive relationships between students, staff, and volunteers, so knowing that students and tutors are able to forge these connections even through an online format makes me very happy,” Berryhill says.
After a year of dealing with a pandemic and the derecho, Splean says tutoring can also help redirect students to other CMC resources when they are in need. By building a strong relationship and learning about students’ lives, tutors can help them find assistance.
She says students report feeling as though their tutor genuinely cares as a result.
“It just means a lot that when [clients] walk into our four walls or when they are connecting with somebody who's affiliated with us virtually, they're getting that sense of welcome like they belong here,” Splean says.